Public interest media - More than RTÉ’s future is at stake

A robust, independent, and responsible public interest broadcaster is part of the furniture of every democracy.

A good public interest broadcaster plays a huge role in the cultural, sporting, and political life of a society, championing the first two of those and occasionally challenging the third. In Ireland we also expect our public service broadcaster to play a significant role in generating and sustaining momentum in that most challenging project — the preservation and advancement of the Irish language. As if that was not enough, we also expect Montrose to fund what are effectively two national orchestras and other music groups.

In the West we may take organisations like RTÉ and the BBC for granted but even the briefest consideration of how such organisations are controlled where free speech or democracy remain an aspiration should make us appreciate them all the more. They are invaluable and stimulating entities and, at their best, greatly enrich our lives.

In Ireland the dual funding model enjoyed by RTÉ for decades is under review for all sorts of reasons, some technological, others to do with how the news and advertising markets have been reshaped. That a market once dominated by RTÉ has become an über competitive arena where myriad interests are pursuing the same revenues has made a funding model review necessary.

Pat Rabbitte, the communications minister, yesterday sought submissions on a public service broadcasting charge, which will replace the television licence fee. He said any new model must provide an efficient and sustainable funding model for public service broadcasting.

This is a complex social issue and an even more complex issue for the media interests competing in the same market. Private television companies have argued, with justification, that RTÉ cannot have the best of both worlds, a public subsidy and a pivotal, insulated position in Ireland’s advertising market. There is a strong rationale behind this argument but if it led to changes that enfeebled RTÉ to the point that the broadcaster’s public service remit was jeopardised then another solution will have to be found.

There are also the tremendous difficulties that threaten to cripple all news providers in Ireland except RTÉ. The station’s assertion that it will never charge for access to its news website is a sword hanging over every newspaper, local radio station, and any other professional news organisation in the country. It seems unacceptable that a publicly funded organisation should adopt a stance that represents such a threat to thousands of jobs. At a moment when jobs and media diversity are pressing issues, this threatening position is untenable.

Mr Rabbitte has correctly said that more and more people watch programmes on platforms other than televisions so even householders without televisions will have to pay the new fee. This is entirely rational and hopefully homeowners, especially rural homeowners, will be able to use this compunction as leverage in their struggles with broadband providers to deliver a service at least on a par with international norms.

Ireland needs an RTÉ, but whether it is the RTÉ we all know and respect today is another matter. Time, tide, and technology wait for no man and we all have to adapt to a changing world. RTÉ is no different. Whatever happens we need a strong public service broadcaster but the equally valid concerns of competing media interests must be addressed under any new arrangements as well.

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